Count Your Blessings

Count Your Blessings

Sep 16, 2022 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Ki Tavo

Ki Tavo is a Torah portion with three parts of interest. First, there are the curses and imprecations with which God threatens the Jewish people if we do not do God’s will. As we do when we read the Torah in synagogue, we will quickly and quietly move past the scary stuff.

Second, we are commanded to bring our first fruits to the Jerusalem Temple once we have settled the land. And then we are commanded to offer them to the priest in acknowledgement of God’s beneficence. When we do so, we recite a fixed liturgy, reinforced, no doubt, by hearing the many Israelites ahead of us in the line reciting the exact same words as the priest prompts them. “Repeat after me . . .” he says.
Arami oved avi—My ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” (Deut. 26:5)

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Reliving Sinai Every Day

Reliving Sinai Every Day

Aug 27, 2021 By Alisa Tzipi Zilbershtein | Commentary | Ki Tavo

Parashat Ki Tavo opens with Moses addressing B’nei Yisrael: “The Lord your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul. You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God, that you will walk in His ways, that you will observe His laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey Him” (Deut. 26:16–17). During my years at JTS, one of the themes that always captivated me was the mystical understanding of the concept of time in the Torah. That is why my attention was immediately drawn to this quote. The specific timeframe “this day” occurs twice here and is repeated multiple times in the parashah. What does “this day” mean? Or rather, when is “this day”?

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Joy Is a Radical Act

Joy Is a Radical Act

Sep 4, 2020 By Benjamin Freed | Commentary | Ki Tavo

“Art is a radical act. Joy is a radical act.”
—Rebecca Makkai, The World’s on Fire. Can We Still Talk About Books?

A few weeks ago, my fiancée and I re-watched the Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out, where anthropomorphized emotions work together and compete to control the feelings and actions of an 11-year-old named Riley. One of the primary lessons is that unchecked “Joy” cannot by itself bring true happiness or properly prepare us for handling life’s more difficult moments. Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust all play a role in making us who we are, and we ignore those emotions at our own risk. As someone who strongly identifies with Amy Poehler’s peppy and unrelentingly optimistic “Joy” character, this message is both sobering and powerful.

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Speaking God, Speaking Humanity

Speaking God, Speaking Humanity

Sep 20, 2019 By Lilly Kaufman | Commentary | Ki Tavo

What makes the Jews God’s people? On Yom Kippur, when we sing Ki anu amekha ve’atah Elohenu (For we are Your people and You are our God), what are we talking about? Is this triumphalism, elitism, exclusivity? Or could it be an ethic of communal, legislated kindness?

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First Fruits, New Thoughts: A Pilgrim Reflects on the First Fruits Ritual

First Fruits, New Thoughts: A Pilgrim Reflects on the First Fruits Ritual

Aug 31, 2018 By Eliezer B. Diamond | Commentary | Ki Tavo

Peace be with you, friend! My name is Micah; I hail from Anav. And you? Shemaryahu, from Jericho, you say; a Benjaminite, then. Well, if you don’t mind sharing the road with a Judahite let’s walk together.

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The Blessing of Curses: A Rosh Hashanah Puzzle

The Blessing of Curses: A Rosh Hashanah Puzzle

Sep 20, 2017 By David Hoffman | Commentary | Ki Tavo | Rosh Hashanah | Shabbat Shuvah

Here’s a puzzle for us to think about as we consider the spiritual work that we need to engage in over the remaining days until Yom Kippur: The Talmud tells us—in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar—that Ezra the Scribe decreed that, for all time, the Jewish people would read the blessings and curses in Leviticus (Parashat Behukkotai) prior to the holiday of Shavuot and those of Deuteronomy (Parashat Ki Tavo) before Rosh Hashanah (BT Megillah 31b). This decree is strange. Reading these graphic and threatening chapters, which detail the good that will come if we are faithful to God and the suffering that will be wrought if we forsake our relationship with God, is difficult at any time. Why insist that we read them publicly as we ready ourselves to celebrate these joyous holidays?

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White Supremacism and Jewish Chosenness

White Supremacism and Jewish Chosenness

Sep 8, 2017 By Hillel Ben Sasson | Commentary | Ki Tavo

Only a month has passed since the horrifying marches of white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the repugnant images and voices from that weekend refuse to fade away. More than anything else, this event reminds us all that hatred toward minorities in general and Jews in particular has never been completely eradicated, and might never be. Yet it also compels us to return to our own idea of the chosen people, and to examine whether our particularism is necessarily a chauvinistic one, as so many have argued over the course of time, from Haman to the present day. 

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Curses and Blessings

Curses and Blessings

Sep 8, 2017 By Galeet Dardashti | Commentary | Ki Tavo

I just recorded this riff/improvisation on a Moroccan rendition of the piyyut “Ahot Ketanah.” The piyyut (liturgical hymn)—particularly beloved by Sephardim as the first piece sung for Rosh Hashanah—references Ki Tavo’s many curses and pleads that this year’s curses come to an end. When I chant it for the High Holidays, the entire kahal holds the drone underneath. The Talmud (BT Megillah 31b) explains that Parashat Ki Tavo ends with incessant curses so that we leave them behind and begin the New Year with only blessings.

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What It Means to Enjoy

What It Means to Enjoy

Sep 23, 2016 By Alan Cooper | Commentary | Ki Tavo

At one of our Shabbat afternoon Talmud classes some 50 years ago, after the usual bout of eating, drinking, and singing, the topic under discussion was what it means to “enjoy” Shabbat and Yom Tov (Sabbath and Festivals). We discussed Rabbi Eliezer’s statement that Festival “rejoicing” is obligatory, as well as the two alternative ways he proffers for attaining pleasure: either by eating and drinking or by sitting and studying. Rabbi Joshua interjects that it should be half of one and half of the other (BT Pesahim 68b).

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Everyone on the Team

Everyone on the Team

Sep 23, 2016 By Craig Scheff | Commentary | Ki Tavo

Everyone on the team, from the manager to the coach, from a secretary to an owner, has a role to fulfill. That role is valuable if the team is to come close to reaching its potential. The leader must understand this. Every single member of your team needs to feel wanted and appreciated. If they are on the team, they deserve to be valued and to feel valued. Do you want someone on the team who doesn’t feel necessary and appreciated? How do they find out unless you let them know?

—John Wooden and Steve Jamison, Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court

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Speaking God, Speaking Humanity

Speaking God, Speaking Humanity

Sep 4, 2015 By Lilly Kaufman | Commentary | Ki Tavo

What makes the Jews God’s people? On Yom Kippur, when we sing Ki anu amekha ve’atah Elohenu (For we are Your people and You are our God), what are we talking about? Is this triumphalism, elitism, exclusivity? Or could it be an ethic of communal, legislated kindness?

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Back to the Future

Back to the Future

Sep 4, 2015 By JTS Alumni | Commentary | Ki Tavo

By Dr. Jacqueline Gerber Lebwhol (GS ’17)

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (trans. Gregory Rabassa)

My college modern literature professor often began class with a communal recitation of this sentence, and many readers consider it among the best first lines of any modern work. What makes this rather strange sentence so powerful?

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Reflective Learning in the Season of Teshuvah

Reflective Learning in the Season of Teshuvah

Sep 12, 2014 By Jason Gitlin | Commentary | Ki Tavo

While the formal Hebrew title for each book of Torah is today derived from a word in its first verse, the Rabbis regularly employed a different logic: use a name that captured the book’s main theme.

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From Reflection to Appreciation

From Reflection to Appreciation

Sep 12, 2014 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Ki Tavo

Having underscored the role of memory at the conclusion of last week’s parashah (remembering the cruelty of Amalek), the Torah now accentuates the importance of appreciation in Parashat Ki Tavo.

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Blessing and Curse

Blessing and Curse

Aug 21, 2013 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Ki Tavo

This week’s portion contains some of the highest highs and lowest lows in the entire Torah—or in any other work of literature, for that matter. At the start of the parashah, Israelites in the wilderness are asked to picture what it will be like to testify, from inside the Land of Israel, that they have seen God’s promises of blessing fulfilled. At the end of the parashah, those same Israelites are subjected to 54 verses of terrifying curses detailing the punishments awaiting them “if you fail to observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching” (Deut. 28:58).

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“Which You, O Lord, Have Given Me”

“Which You, O Lord, Have Given Me”

Aug 21, 2013 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Ki Tavo

Having underscored the role of memory at the conclusion of last week’s parashah (remembering the cruelty of Amalek), Torah now accentuates the importance of appreciation in Parashat Ki Tavo.

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Tip Toe Through Ki Tavo

Tip Toe Through Ki Tavo

Sep 8, 2012 By Ofra Backenroth | Commentary | Ki Tavo

This week’s Torah parashah is concerned with the Israelites’ entrance into the Promised Land. The parashah emphasizes that the Israelites should obey God’s commandments faithfully, with all their heart and soul. Since the Covenant between God and Israel establishes mutually binding obligations for both God and the Israelites, God’s commitments are also reaffirmed: the promise to make Israel a holy people.

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Call and Response

Call and Response

Sep 17, 2011 By Andrew Shugerman | Commentary | Text Study | Ki Tavo

While many know that a debate over the role of Hebrew in prayer led to the birth of Conservative Judaism, fewer realize that this question actually first arose with our ancient Sages 2,000 years ago.

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The Religious Value of Critical Study

The Religious Value of Critical Study

Aug 28, 2010 By Eliezer B. Diamond | Commentary | Ki Tavo

Parashat Ki Tavo begins with a description of the ceremony for bringing the first fruits to the Temple. As part of this ritual, the following is to be recited by the pilgrim bringing the produce:

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he descended to Egypt. There he became a great and mighty nation. The Egyptians did us harm and caused us suffering; they placed upon us the burden of hard labor. We called out to the Lord the God of our ancestors; God heard our voices, and He saw our suffering, our hard labor and our oppression. The Lord brought us forth from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with signs and with wonders. And he brought us to this place, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now behold I have brought the first fruits of the land that You have given to me. (Deut. 26:5–10)

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Your Zeyde the Pilgrim

Your Zeyde the Pilgrim

Sep 29, 2009 By Eliezer B. Diamond | Commentary | Ki Tavo

Try to imagine your zeyde, born and bred in Lithuania, dressed as a Pilgrim. I did. Like any other American schoolchild, I learned how the Pilgrims came to these shores on the Mayflower, how they celebrated their first harvest together with the Wampanoag Indians, and how this celebration became the basis for our holiday of Thanksgiving. For reasons that were not clear to me at the time, I tried to picture my Litvak grandfather as a Pilgrim, but the moment I did I started laughing.

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